31 Dec 2012

An Interview with Julie Klassen author of 'The Tutor's Daughter'

Below are and answers to some interview questions I posed to Julie Klassen after reading a Netgalley Copy of her New Novel 'The Tutor's Daughter', due to be released tomorrow. My Review of the book may be seen here.

Most Christian Historical novels that I know of are set in America, what made you choose to set ‘The Tutor’s Daughter’ and some of your other novels in Britain or England?

Yes, all of my novels have been set in England so far, with The Tutor’s Daughter being set specifically in Cornwall. I have been fascinated with England ever since I read The Secret Garden and Jane Eyre as a girl. I’m not sure why the setting appealed to me so much, but to this day I am captivated by the rich history, delicious accents, and beauty of the country. My husband and I have been able to visit England twice now and hope to return soon. I jokingly say the real reason I’m writing is to justify my long-held desire to travel to England!

I have been told that Christian Historical novels set outside America do not tend to be so popular or sell so well. Did you find this to this to be the case with yours? 

True. I was advised early on that if I wanted to sell more books, I should set them in western America in the late 1800s—a very popular setting for Christian fiction. But I’m a big believer in writing the kinds of novels your yourself love to read. So that’s what I do. And I’m deeply thankful that sales have been good and many readers are enjoying travelling to early 19th century England with me through my books.

Parts of the Tutor’s Daughter seem to reflect Jane Eyre and other classics; did these consciously influence your writing? 

As I mentioned, I was introduced to Jane Eyre at a young age. My 6th grade teacher read the book to us aloud over several weeks with real emotion and even mascara-tears. She (and the book) certainly made an impression on me. My third book, The Silent Governess, was more directly influenced by Jane Eyre than this one. But everything we take in influences us and effects our writing, whether we realize it or not. That’s why I always encourage young writers to make sure they are reading well-written, worthwhile books.

Are any of the characters in ‘The Tutor’s Daughter’ based on any characters we might recognise from the classics? 

I wouldn’t say “based on,” but I can think of several characters in my books that have been  influenced or inspired by characters I’ve met in the pages of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and others. In this book, I would say Emma Smallwood reflects some qualities of sensible, stoic Elinor Dashwood from Sense & Sensibility. And perhaps Phillip Weston has a few things in common with mild-mannered, conflicted Edward Ferrars.

Most of your novels seems to be set on the 1800s or the ‘regency’ period (though it should be called Victorians), is this era of particular interest to you and why? 

[[Note fyi only: Most writers agree that the Victorian era began in 1837 with Queen Victoria’s reign. The Regency period is the time when the Prince Regent ruled (1811-1820), though some extend it through his reign as king after his father died. In any case, here’s my answer:]]

I am specifically drawn to the Regency era (1811-1820) because that was when Jane Austen’s novels, which I enjoy and admire, were published (though written somewhat earlier). I think Regency novels are a great fit for the inspirational market in particular, because they are set at a time when people, by and large, valued virtue, revered God and church, and endeavored to follow the rules of polite society—things less common today. It was a time when chivalry was alive and well. Physical contact between unmarried ladies and gentlemen was limited to the chaste touching of hands during a courtly dance at a grand ball. I find it a very romantic time, as do many I’m happy to say!

I confess to knowing very little about this period (the Medieval Era is my speciality), but it seems your research has been very extensive. Can you tell me more about that?

Yes, I have had to do a lot of research, but I enjoy it. Some is online, but much of it is through old books. For this novel, I found several new sources (beyond the pile of books I already own about life and education in Regency England), including excerpts of Cornish newspapers from the time, accounts of shipwrecks, etc.  

                A few years ago, while I was researching The Silent Governess, I came across information about private tutors. Public schools as we know them didn’t exist in those days. Parents often hired educated university graduates without fortunes to live with them and tutor their sons, as governesses did for girls. Or, they might send their sons to live with a learned man to be educated in his home. (Jane Austen’s own father took in pupils, so Jane grew up with male boarders sharing her house and her father’s time. Perhaps that’s why Edward Ferrars, in Sense and Sensibility, had been sent away to be educated by a clergyman--and there became secretly engaged to the clergyman’s niece, Miss Lucy Steele).
                And lastly, I’ve been able to do some research on location (my favorite sort!) during our trips to England.

If you could give one piece of advice or word of encouragement to an aspiring author of novels in this genre, what would it be? 

Many readers know this genre well. My advice would be to do your research or you’ll hear about it later. You will make some (hopefully minor) mistakes. We all do. But do all you can not to yank the reader from the time and place--the story world--you’ve created.

Thanks for the interview—great questions!

23 Dec 2012

Review of 'The Fairest Beauty' by Melanie Dickerson

The Fairest Beauty by Melanie Dickerson ★★★☆☆
"A daring rescue. A difficult choice. Sophie desperately wants to get away from her stepmother's jealousy, and believes escape is her only chance to be happy. Then a young man named Gabe arrives from Hagenheim Castle, claiming she is betrothed to his older brother, and everything twists upside down. This could be Sophie's one chance at freedom---but can she trust another person to keep her safe?
Gabe defied his parents Rose and Wilhelm by going to find Sophie, and now he believes they had a right to worry: the girl's inner and outer beauty has enchanted him. Though romance is impossible---she is his brother's future wife, and Gabe himself is betrothed to someone else---he promises himself he will see the mission through, no matter what. When the pair flee to the Cottage of the Seven, they find help---but also find their feelings for each other have grown. Now both must not only protect each other from the dangers around them---they must also protect their hearts."
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Opinion: `The Fairest Beauty `was a good and original retelling of the Snow White stories, which stood out from the crowd of some of the recent dramatic adaptations of recent times. Melanie Dickerson seems to have a knack for cleverly transferring fairy tales into a real historical background, in this case Germany in the early 1400s, and whilst removing the more fantastical elements (magic, fairy godmothers) retaining the basic elements of stories as well as their charm.
The Christian themes in this novel seemed to be well presented, especially that of forgiveness and reconciliation which could be seen to fit the story well.

There are some interesting and well-drawn characters, Gabehart the hero being my favourite. He seemed to be something of a lovable rogue at first. Impetuous and determined to prove himself, perhaps even with a slightly rebellious streak which caused him to defy his family to go and save Sophie, he nevertheless seemed rather an endearing character.
Then there was of course Sophie (Snow White). Sophie's life is endangered by the Duchess Ermengard's murderously egotistical rage, and has to be rescued by Gabe, but she is not shrinking violet and seems sufficiently spunky and independent to please most people.
This said, she was not my favourite character, although she had her moments, she seemed a little too passive sometimes. She and Gabe's developing love, whilst also sweet did seem a little predictable in its culmination, with the possibility of Sophie marrying Gabe's brother to whom she was betrothed seeming very unlikely. Of course she would fall for the dashing hero who saved her.

Not to forget Duchess Ermangard herself- the archetypal fairy-tale baddie of the Wicked Stepmother. She was indeed an egotistical megalomaniac, as could be expected, yet I found her to be rather a disappointment. Rather like Tilda Swinton's White Witch in `The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe' movie, she just did not seem to very threatening or menacing, as much as she was meant to be so.
As another reviewee pointed out she seemed to 'lack motivation' her her cruelty. If Sophie herself and almost everyone else believed her to be a servant, and the Duke's daughter that she really was to be dead how could she be that much of a treat to the Duchess? It would be much more plausible if, as in the original story, Sophie and everyone else knew exactly who she was.
Finally, `The Seven' who were not seven dwarves, (though one match the description) but seven men with what we would now call learning and physical disabilities. Each was unique, but not all seemed to be developed, though that may have been because some played a more prominent role, whilst others seemed to be very much minor characters.

Moving onto the story itself. It is sweet and charming, and in some places engaging, yet it somehow reminds me of a children's drama or movie that could be corny and unrealistic in places. For instance, it was supposed to be almost impossible to escape from Hohendorf Castle, the Duchesses' dominion, and the characters state that few have ever done so.
Yet no fewer than three characters are literally able to walk (or ride) out in a short space of time.
Sophie and Gabe's pursuit by the Duchess soldiers through a forest provided some excitement, but also would not be out of place in a movie. Though unlike in some of these, not all the arrows loosed by the bad guys miss, and Gabe does get wounded.
The novel also seemed to lag a little towards the middle and the end, though this was the part in which Gabe and Sophie love developed.

Overall, the Fairest Beauty is a worthwhile read, and I think would certainly appeal to teenage girls, but also in some ways to adults too, though maybe not universally.
It was original, imaginative and enjoyable enough, though I felt rather corny, predictable and implausible in places.
As with a previous novel read by the author , I also felt that the writing style of this one seemed a little too simplistic with a few too many coincidences or easy resolutions. This said, as an adult reading a novel aimed at children, it is possible my expectations were too high, and the writing style was intended to appeal to a younger audience.
Christianity/Morality: Aside from some characters referring to the Duchess Ermengard dabbling in Black Magic, and Sophie and Gabe's relationship blossoming when she was still betrothed to Gabe's brother, there was little objectionable in the book.
This said, Sophie and Gabe did kiss and embrace, though nothing that was actually immoral actually conspired between them when the betrothal still stood- although by the standards of the time such behavior might well have been regarded as such.

History: Some other terms the character's used also seemed a little too modern. In one passage Sophie thought that the Seven playing their instruments looked like a 'band'- exactly how would a fifteenth century person know what a boyband looked like when no such thing existed? There was also talk of Gabe having 'taken' an arrow, as one would 'take' a bullet today. Bows were not the same as guns, and I am not sure Medieval people would have spoken in such terms 
Towards the end of the novel Gabe turned down the offer of getting his own land, and even the title of a Duke because he was more interested in pursuing a career as a Master Stonemason. It seemed very implausible that the son of a nobleman would done such a thing  in order to take up a profession  which would likely have been seen as 'beneath' them. 
I received an advance copy of this book free from the Publisher in return for a review. I was not required to write a positive one.

6 Dec 2012

Review of 'The Tutor's Daughter'by Julie Klassen

The Tutor's Daughter by Julie Klassen ★★★★☆
"Emma Smallwood, determined to help her widowed father regain his spirits when his academy fails, agrees to travel with him to the distant Cornwall coast, to the cliff-top manor of a baronet and his four sons. But after they arrive and begin teaching the younger boys, mysterious things begin to happen and danger mounts. Who does Emma hear playing the pianoforte, only to find the music room empty? Who sneaks into her room at night? Who rips a page from her journal, only to return it with a chilling illustration?

The baronet's older sons, Phillip and Henry, wrestle with problems--and secrets--of their own. They both remember Emma Smallwood from their days at her father's academy. She had been an awkward, studious girl. But now one of them finds himself unexpectedly drawn to her.
When the suspicious acts escalate, can the clever tutor's daughter figure out which brother to blame...and which brother to trust with her heart?"
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This is the first Christian Historical Novel I have read set in this period, and the first by this author, so it was really something of a new experience for me. Overall, it was very good, and though it is a modern novel, it really seems to have the 'feel' of the classics. There definitely seem to be shades of Jane Eyre, with the mysterious nocturnal visitor, the family secret, and the forbidden wing of the house, and perhaps also even some resemblance to Pride & Prejudice, with Emma Smallwood ‘The Tutor’s Daughter’  and Henry Weston having to overcome their preconceptions about one another, to allow their blossoming love to emerge.

It did take me a while to ‘get into’ the novel, as it seemed to be a little slow and repetitive at first, with descriptions of Emma’s daily routine, and the actions built around it. It does get better about a quarter to a third of the way through, with the ‘family secret’ becoming more prominent and the characters apparently starting to come into their own. The major Characters like Emma, her father and the two Weston brothers seemed well developed and believable, enough, though others seemed a little lacking, such as the younger brothers.

I would also say that the American author has done very well in creating a believable British setting and characters, whose attitudes and values largely seem to reflect those of their time. One of my pet hates is historical novels set in Britain in which the characters are too 'Americanized', but that did not seem to be a problem here. 

The Christian elements of the story seemed to be well done, and the necessity of repentance and forgiveness was conveyed. This said, the word itself is not actually used, and Emma’s conversion did not necessarily seem to be presented clearly enough.
The historical elements seemed well researched, though I am not very familiar with this period, so I would likely not be able to spot any inaccuracies very easily. I only wish I had been able to read this book on Kindle so that I could look up the definitions of unfamiliar terms more easily.

The only other complaint I really had was with some of the romantic content, which could seem annoying, distracting or inappropriate.. Emma and Henry's affirmation of their love in the storm scene seemed particularly out of place, it just did not seem the time or the place for them to be worrying about Romance, and sometimes the expressions of Romantic feelings, or some of the characters remarks and comments did not necessarily seem to fit it with what would have been seen  as appropriate according to the social conventions of the upper classes in this period. 

'The Tutor's Daughter' is Due for release on January 1st in America, but we Brits have to wait until February.

Thanks to Netgalley and Bethany House for allowing me to have an electronic copy of this book. I was under no obligation to write a positive review. 

22 Nov 2012

On My Anniversary (or Blogaversary)

It is official, yesterday was the first anniversary of the creation of this blog on Wordpress, on the 21st November 2011, or rather of my first post.

Unfortunately, I can't offer any tantalizing prizes or fantastic giveaways, and there will be no celebratory jousting or banqueting.

So for one year I have been publishing reviews, rants, musings and other random insights about Christian historical fiction on this lovely site from my corner of England. I have never had many followers (maybe one day more will come) but I did once get a negative mention in a comment on Amazon.  Does that mean I have achieved notoriety?

Prizes and giveaways might be a good 'incentive'. How does one go about setting up such things, I mean persuading honest hard working authors to give away books for free?

So what am I up to now (apart from serious academic work of course). Well I am reading two novels, the Tutor's Daughter by Julie Klassen  due for release in January, and A Corpse at St Andrew's Chapel,  by Mel Starr. The first is set in Cornwall in the 1800s and contains some elements of mystery/thriller, with someone playing the piano at night, but the room found empty, and other mysterious activities. Emma Smallwood, whose father is Tutor to the two younger sons of a noble family at thier grand house also seems to have a bit of a romantic interest  in one of the Older Sons Philip, whom she knew and taught alongside his brother at she and her father's school years before.

 The second number two Medieval Murder Mystery series, the Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton. In a way, I like the book, the descriptions of Medieval Life and the physical environment are interesting, and I think rather well done. The one problem is that I an mot sure if I like the protagonist, Hugh.
He only seems to be occupied by two things, food and pretty women. This is not to say he is immoral of lecherous, but he is looking for a wife, and seems to spend a lot of time fantasizing about finding one, thinking about women he would like to marry, and easily distracted by  a pretty face.
When a suspicious death occurs, he does  some investigation, but has to promptly return to the castle where he lives at regular intervals so as not to miss out on his next meal....which he hates to do.

18 Nov 2012

Review of Undercurrent by Michelle Griep

Undercurrent Michelle Griep ★★★☆☆

"Professor Cassie Larson leads a life her undergrad students hope to attain, until she tumbles into the North Sea and is sucked down into a swirling vortex...and a different century. Alarik, son of a Viking chieftain, is blamed for a murder he didn't commit-or did he? He can't remember. On the run, saving a half-drowned foreign woman wasn't in his plan. Ragnar is a converted pagan shunned by many but determined to prove his Cousin Alarik's innocence. He didn't count on falling in love with Cassie or the deadly presence of evil that threatens his village in Alarik's absence."
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Opinion: This was one of those novels for which I had rather mixed feelings when reading it. Some parts I really enjoyed others I disliked intensely. The setting, overall was quite original, most Christian novels set in the medieval period seem to be set in the 1300s, so having one set in the Later Viking Era  was in some ways different, and probably made it more interesting. 

The best Viking characters were Alarik and the Christian Ragnar, of whom Ragnar was arguably the most interesting as the only non-pagan in his territory (or almost the only one). The exploration of what it meant to be a Christian in a culture, time and society so different from our own, and the way in which Ragnar remained firm in his faith was one of the better aspects of the story. Indeed, if Viking Christians really were like him, they would indeed put modern Christians to shame.
This said, some of the other Viking could be seen as little more than typecast barbarian savages who just get drunk or get into fights. 

The novel could be slow and the narrative rather weak in places, it really seemed to me as though nothing of particular significance happened (aside from Ragnar meeting Cassie) until about two thirds of the way through the book, and the characters spent most of their time trudging through the countryside (apparently York/Jorvik was the only settlement for miles). 
There were some humorous scenes with Cassie and the Viking men, in which she tried to speak their language and got words mixed up, or introduced her surname as ‘Larson’ which would be masculine in Medieval Scandinavia. Her relationship and openness to Ragnar is touching, albeit a little predictable. 

Overall, Undercurrent is well worth a read, but could have been better and I did have a few concerns, which are highlighted below. 

Christianity/Morality: Some Christian concepts, such as forgiveness, and the depth of Christian commitment are well presented and thoughtfully explored in this novel. The necessity of faith in Christ and repentance to salvation also seem to be presented clearly in the novel. 

One of the most annoying aspects of the novel (and probably the main reason why I disliked it in parts) was the nature of the interactions between men and women. For the most part the men just seemed to leer at or lust after the nearest pretty girl, and the descriptions of them doing it could become rather tiresome, or distasteful. 
Even Christian Ragnar’s repeatedly fantasising about Cassie gets a little bit much after a while.I know such things happen and are a sad reflection on human nature, but Viking men with only one thing on their minds who cannot look at a girl without ogling her, or women who want to throw themselves at the nearest strapping Norseman could just prove annoying and shallow after a while.
Alarik is more committed to the idea of only having his betrothed, but even he cannot keep his hands off her when they are reunited in Norway, and has relations with her in front of Alarik and Cassie, though thankfully this is not described in detail and they soon leave. 

Another things that was worrying was the ability which of one of the Viking characters apparently had to foretell future events. This was called ‘foresight’ and was events were usually presaged by him having ‘bad feelings’. Although the character in question named Magnus does mention Jesus, it is not certain that he is a Christian, and so the source of his ability is extremely dubious. 
In the beginning of the novel, the mysterious peddler whom Cassis buys the wooden clasp which is so significant to the story from disappears soon afterwards, and reappears in Viking York to give her advice and guidance. It is strongly implied therefore that he is supposed to be some king of guardian angel or angelic guide, but the way he is presented and behaves just seems weird and not in agreement with the way the Bible presents such beings. 

Finally, readers may wish to note the villain engages in some very dark practices, such as a form of pagan black magic which seemingly allows him to ‘shape shift’. This is described, but not gerneally in detail and is in no way glorified. 

History: I personally know very little about the Vikings, and I do not know how historically accurate and plausible the story is, though the period details do seem authentic for the most part, there were a few things that were questionable. I would have thought for instance that there might have been more Christians (at least nominal ones) in Scandinavia by the time when this novel was set, approaching the year 1000, and perhaps more in Viking areas of England, such as Jorvik. 
The violent, ‘backwards’, unhygienic and ‘barbaric’ nature of the environment in which some of the characters lived (especially in England) did seem a little exaggerated or overdone at times, and I would have thought there would be more than one substantially sized city in the North of England which the characters would have come across, instead of traveling for days and only encountering a rare village or two. 
Thanks to the author for giving me a free PDF edition of her book to read.

27 Oct 2012

The Tutor's Daughter by Julie Klassen Book Trailer

Here is a Book Trailer for the soon the upcoming novel, 'The Tutor's Daughter' by Julie Klassen, due to be released in December or the 1st January.

I have not read anything by this author before, and nothing set in this period in the Christian Fiction Genre, Any thoughts from readers on the book or trailer?
I distinctly hope the novel does not feature an actual ghost, as I do not go in for ghost stories.  Maybe it's just me, but I get there feeling there may be  shades of Jane Eyre here, with the odd nocturnal happenings which Henry Weston tried to explain away being clues some family secret that nobody is willing to let on about. A mad wife hidden in the attic perhaps? Nah wouldn't that  just be copying Miss Charlotte Bronte, and far too obvious? 

20 Sept 2012

Review of 'The Scarlet Trefoil' by L.A Kelly

The Scarlet Trefoil: Book Three of the Tahn Dorn Trilogy ★★★☆☆

"The Trilett family and friends prepare for the joyous celebration of Tahn and Netta's wedding. Returning from a party in her honor, Netta is kidnapped, and her coachman and escorts are found murdered. It looks like the work of bandits, but Tahn is secretly sent a message that Netta will be released if he will present himself in trade. Tahn believes that his murderously jealous cousin, Baron Lionel Trent, is responsible for the villainy. The baron would surely kill Tahn given the chance, just to eliminate the possibility of a rival heir. But Tahn chooses to go to the assigned meeting place anyway, alone as ordered, in hopes of securing Netta's release. Will he succeed in rescuing his bride? Or will Tahn and Netta forever miss their chance at happiness?"
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Opinion: As with the last novel, this one left me with somewhat mixed feelings, overall, I would say I enjoyed it a little better than the last one, but it had many of the same shortcomings as its predecessor. The first half of the novel seemed to me repetitive and rather slow and tedious. Netta gets kidnapped, and Tahn gets captured by the bad guys and beaten up again. Even these events seemed predictable, or at least not unlikely, and it required almost no imagination to guess who was behind it all- naturally the villain from the last novel Lionell Trent, with his usual plan to eliminate Tahn with the help of the bandits from the last book.  He doesn't seem to have much imagination either...

Parts of the second half I found more enjoyable, partly because they seemed more historically plausible or simply well written and original then other parts of the book.
Some of the characters start to come into their own a little more, like Benn Trilett who is not such a wet blanket. The conclusion to Than and Netta’s story was satisfying, if a little predictable, and one could be forgiven for thinking that a little too much adversity then was plausible was thrown at them before they got their happy ending. 

Christianity/Morality: There is hardly any objectionable content in this novel, apart from some violence against Tahn and Netta which does arguably become a little tiresome by its overuse. ‘The Scarlet Trefoil is a good Christian novel which builds upon many of the same themes of the two prequels, such as the efficacy of prayer, and the faithfulness of God.
The only thing which I found a little strange was the appearance of angels at Tahn’s side, who are initially there to protect him from the baddies.
I know that ministering angels are mentioned in scripture, and I do believe in their existence, but the manner with which Tahn almost causally converses with the angel just seemed to me a little bit –for lack of a better word- weird. 

History: As with the other novels, a lot of the characters were so ‘Americanised’ in terms their speech and attitudes- and even some of the names that they could have stepped off the set of a Western. I personally find that content such as this makes it difficult to take the characters seriously as medieval people, and it seems as though the story is populated mainly by sword wielding cowboys.

Another thing which bothered me was the depiction of aristocratic characters- which seemed to reflect American prejudices and stereotypes more than fact. Apparently almost every person of noble blood (except the practically perfect in every way Triletts) was supposed to be lazy and pampered- unlike real medieval aristocrats whose often were the fighting classes.
Then there was the way that any customary practice or tradition which did not make sense to the characters was regarded as 'stupid' or unnecessary. 
Personally, I think it takes more than sword wielding men on horses and the , lords and ladies, and an odd castle or two to make an authentic Medieval tale, and that this trilogy really would have been better set in another time period.
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